My favorite Orioles closer is Gregg Olson, which probably says more about when I grew up than any real affinity, but I always remember 1990 when he saved 37 games as being the year when he took his place amongst the elite. Maybe it was because Bobby Thigpen saved 57 games that season, and for some reason the two players get all Picasso-jumbled together into one image wearing orange and black. Probably it was the curve. My God his curve was something to behold.
Whoever you have as yours, if you go so far as to pick a favorite closer for other teams, chances are it’s not Jim Johnson. Think about this: Johnson had 51 saves in 2012 and 50 in ’13. There have been precisely 14 seasons in MLB history with 50 or more saves, and Johnson has two of them. Huh? Johnson had 30 fewer saves from 2012-13 than Olson had in his entire four year run as the O’s closer and sits only 10 behind Olson as the O’s career leader. If Johnson hadn’t blown nine games last season, he might have spent this April celebrating his perch atop the O’s all-time list. So it goes.
Those nine games are the salt rubbed into the wound that is 2013, wouldn’t you say? The Orioles finished 85-77, and with the Red Sox running away with the East to a tune of 97-65, the O’s most realistic shot at the postseason was the Wild Card. Cleveland finished 92-70 while both Tampa Bay and Texas finished 91-71 (the Rays won the play-in game against Texas 5-2 to earn the right to beat Cleveland 4-0 in the “for reals” Wild Card playoff game), so there’s a slight chance the playoffs were possible. 2012 was a magical year, and Chris Davis in ‘13 proved that a little magic remained, so maybe with a more dependable closer and a few more breaks the O’s are the ones playing Boston in the ALDS.
Why am I focusing on 2013? Because I wonder if the Orioles are really any better off this year than they were last season. Never mind that Johnson was traded to Oakland and was out as their closer by April 10. Separate event. I don’t want to argue if Johnson was the right closer for the O’s this season. I want to see if the Orioles have improved from the late-inning disasters that were part of ‘13’s letdown.
First, though, I’d like to answer the very basic question: is nine blown saves a lot? Turns out, yeah, it’s a lot. I took all the qualified relievers from last season and looked at those that had recorded both double-digit saves and had more saves than holds. This was a quick method to find relievers that were considered a team’s primary closer at some point during the season. The average for ‘13 was 4.3, the median was 4, and with a standard deviation of 1.91, Johnson’s nine blown saves were actually three standard deviations from the mean. You could say that’s a bit extreme. But, you know who also blew quite a few saves last year? That would be Mariano Rivera with seven. I’m not here to compare Johnson to Rivera, but sometimes bad things happen to good closers.
Before getting off track in trying to defend Johnson’s 2013 season let me rein this article in and begin discussing whether the O’s have done any better in ‘14. Just by glancing over the stats I think it’s difficult to argue that the Orioles have improved upon last year, seeing as we’re nearing the end of June, close to the halfway point in the season, and the O’s are already onto their second closer with five blown saves between them. Johnson wasn’t onto blown save number five until September 9th. Is it that easy then? Ready to close this case as Myth Busted? Maybe I should dig a little deeper, just in case.
In essence, blown saves are just an outcome. Historically, teams win 95% of the games they lead going into the ninth inning, so if Johnson was significantly lower than that in 2013 (84.7% to be exact) he was right around that figure in 2012 (94.4%), and I’m offering a percentage based on percentage of games successfully saved by Johnson, not necessarily games the Orioles lost (more on that later). If blown saves are just an outcome, what are the contributing factors that make them more likely? Dumb luck is one of them, certainly, but we can look at the splits for the various pitchers to see how they handle save and non-save situations.
This is the point where I mention small sample sizes and current statistics, seeing as both Tommy Hunter and Zach Britton have only had a handful of games apiece to display their ability to handle the closer’s role, but if we can draw any conclusions from the data above is that Hunter didn’t exactly set the world on fire when he started the season as the designated stopper. Britton has done a more admirable job, and the numbers at least indicate an ability to not turn to quivering jelly with increased pressure. For all three of those players, how do their numbers compare to non-save situations?
All three pitchers were markedly better in non-save situations, though Britton showed the most improvement in WHIP (44.9%) when placed into situations that where a save was not possible. Does this chart mean much? Honestly, probably not too much this early in the season. I’ll revisit this at the end of the year to see where it stands. Right now, one good/bad outing skews ‘14’s numbers either way.
No More Stress
Another interesting area to explore with these three gentlemen is how they’ve handled their respective appearances in terms of stress free innings. I’ll define stress free as innings where each pitcher saw the minimum of batters without allowing either a hit or a walk.
Stress Free Innings
Britton has been Johnson’s equal in this regard, but combined the two O’s closers have been slightly worse (27.2%) than Johnson in ‘13. If I become a little less rigid in my definition of stress free innings, accounting for all of the appearances where the pitcher faced only the bare minimum of batters, Johnson came in at 43.2%, Hunter remained at 25%, and Britton is currently at 41.9%. We’ll skip the table on that one.
Limit the Tire Fires
I think many O’s fans took issue with Johnson not only blowing saves but also allowing multiple runs so many times. Do the numbers bear that out, though? And, in 2014, have the O’s closers performed any better?
Johnson had a few rough innings in ’13, but all told, in 94.6% of his outings he allowed either zero or one runs. Hunter and Britton have combined for 92.7% with the same results, which means that so far in ’14 the O’s closers have been worse at limiting the damage (7.3% of the time they’ve allowed 1+) than Johnson last year. And, if we look at those outings where the closers just completely lost their mojo and allowed 4+ runs, which to me indicates one of those “everything is just F’d moments,” Johnson had two such blown saves last season where he allowed 4+ while Hunter/Britton also have combined for two as well. The O’s so far haven’t really done any better, but there’s certainly the potential here to do worse.
Case of Wins and Losses
Perhaps, then, we’re looking at a case of the game’s eventual outcome coloring our perception of the closer. In Johnson’s nine blown saves last season, the Orioles were 1-8 while this season they’re 2-3. It’s not as though all of those nine blown saves were especially egregious, where Johnson collapsed after being given huge leads. In seven of those games, he entered with a one-run lead, and in four of those he allowed the team to tie. In the other five games (three up by one-run and two up by 2+) Johnson allowed multiple runs to score, giving his team either no chance (two on the road) to win or making the task more difficult.
Between Hunter and Britton, of the five blown games between them, four were when the O’s lead by one-run and in three of those the two allowed multiple runs.
Then if you take into account that on two separate occasions last season, Johnson blew saves in three straight appearances, it made the perception of his failures all the greater because they happened in quick succession.
Other Things of Note
Going forward, it looks as though Buck Showalter has decided to allow Zach Britton to close games, and one thing to keep an eye on is Britton’s extreme ground ball rate. This season, Britton has induced batters to hit grounders on nearly 38% of his at-bats, up significantly from the 23.39% rate historically. His strikeouts are also up to 20% of at-bats from 15%. Needless to say, a sustained increase in both of those categories bodes well for his future. Most interesting is that his GB/FB ratio is at an unconscious 7.70, way up from his previous career high 2.62. Let’s just say I don’t see that lasting.
Maybe you’re tired of tables by now, but I have a few more just to illustrate that there might be hope in Baltimore.
Britton’s numbers for 2014 are all extremely atypical based upon previous seasons, so you have to figure there’s going to be some regression. While that’s not the good news, the pitch where he’s seen the biggest improvement is his sinker. Batters this season are hitting.198/.273/.267 against the pitch and hitting the ball into the ground, you guessed it, 77.2% of the time. Grounders are so important because of the park Britton pitches in. Take a look at Camden Yard’s Park Factors for the past few years:
|Year||Basic||HR||HR as L||HR as R|
Camden has historically played as an above average hitters’ park and was only second to Colorado for home runs by left-handers from 2011-13, so having a lefty that forces batters to ground out could be seen as something of an asset.
Just to be thorough, here are the pitch results for Britton vs righties.
Britton Pitch Results vs Righties
And vs lefties:
Britton Pitch Results vs Lefties
Ok, so two thousand words later and what have I discovered? So far, the results in 2014 haven’t exactly been an improvement upon 2013. In many ways, the O’s have been worse this season than they were last year. I do think there are reasons for optimism, though. While there obviously will be regression with Britton’s performance relative to career norms, it looks as though the sinker is working for him.
This is an Orioles’ specialty, isn’t it? Every few years, they find a guy that nobody really knew could handle the closer role. Be it B.J. Ryan, George Sherrill, Jorge Julio (ok, just kidding). For me, I’d like to revisit this idea at the end of the season and compare Britton’s performance based on a full year’s worth of data.